Three men stood shivering under a crane in front of the Severn RiverBridge and joked about throwing themselves under its wheels.
In the hush after the laughter, they stared gloomily at the construction signs and orange barrels lining the entrance of the crumbling Annapolis drawbridge.
Community activists are still fighting in the courts and organizing marches to protest replacement of the 1920s-era bridge with a modern 80-foot-high span. But construction of the new $33.4 million bridge has begun.
The State Highway Administration is building a detourroad next to the U.S. Naval Academy to shift some of the local traffic. Divers also are burying electric cables that cross the river in preparation for the first pile drivings, scheduled to begin by the endof the month.
A floating silt fence that looks like a yellow inner tube has been set up near the shore to protect a relocated oyster bed.
Leaflets are being sent to boating groups to warn them of the work, although lanes will be kept open.
When preliminary work is finished, the state will begin a series of test drivings to find bedrock at the river bottom. Hundreds more pile drivings will secure the foundation over the next year.
Meanwhile, Ernest Hodshon, the project engineer, is meeting with community groups to ease fears about noise and dirt during the two-year construction period. By making an effort to reach out to the Naval Academy and Annapolis community, he hopes to stem lingering doubts about the project.
"I love it this way," he said in an interview yesterday. "If you have these meetings with the residents, and you can get them tied into that upbeat, positivethinking, things really go well."
Still, despite all his enthusiasm, the state isn't likely to win many converts among the those fighting the new bridge.
They've marched, held hands across the old drawbridge, petitioned, conducted opinion polls and filed lawsuits. Eventhough they lost their case in federal court, they're busy with an appeal, scheduled to be heard in Richmond, Va., in mid-June, and filing for an injunction to stop the construction until then.
Another rally on the bridge is planned for March 22, said Bryan Miller, president of Citizens for a Scenic Severn River Bridge. And new signs protesting the high bridge continue to sprout up across Annapolis.
"There's nothing going on that can't be stopped," Miller said.
"We're trying to let people know that it's not a done deal, that nothing's going on that we would call irreparable."
He is optimistic that theproject can be halted mid-stream if the citizens group wins its appeal, and he cited a similar end to the Three Sisters Bridge in Washington several years ago.
Opponents also hope the National Register of Historic Places will agree to list the 67-year-old drawbridge, which was designed by Joseph B. Strauss, the architect who created San Francisco's famous Golden Gate Bridge.
But they're a little nervous.Walking toward the drawbridge with Miller yesterday, Charlie Lamb and David Wallace, both longtime Annapolis residents, talked about the battle and the bridge's significance to the city.
"This is a very comfortable bridge," Lamb said. "I have a real attachment for all things that are in harmony with one another."